Thai Muslims Stranded in India Seek Help after COVID-19 Clampdown

Mariyam Ahmad
Pattani, Thailand
200403-IN-covid-1000.jpg Muslim pilgrims walk toward a bus that will take them to a quarantine facility, at the Nizamuddin area of New Delhi, March 31, 2020.

More than 100 Thai Muslims who attended an Islamic gathering in India last month appealed to their government Friday to help them return home after New Delhi imposed a clampdown on the event, which has emerged as a “super-spreader” for COVID-19.

India has reported 2,567 confirmed cases with 72 deaths as of Friday, according to the latest data compiled by disease experts at Johns Hopkins University in the United States. Indian newspapers, quoting data from state governments, said at least eight of the deaths have been linked to people who attended an event organized by the Tablighi Jamaat, a prominent Muslim missionary group, in the first weeks of March.

“They have no place to go in India,” Adam Danehmuso, chief of the Thai affiliate office of Tablighi, told BenarNews. “We want Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, regional religious, local military or Deep South authorities to help them.”

Adam said the Thai group arrived two months ago at the six-story Nizamuddin Markaz building, which serves as a hostel and center for missionary workers who attend Tablighi events in a cramped corner of New Delhi.

But New Delhi authorities imposed a citywide lockdown starting on March 23, followed by a national one starting March 25, after hundreds of coronavirus cases were linked to the religious gathering.

Adam said 115 Thais from the predominantly Muslim Deep South region later found themselves in limbo after Indian authorities clamped down on the Tablighi gathering and prohibited participants from staying at the missionary group’s headquarters.

About 95 percent of the 647 COVID-19 infections in the country during the past two days have been linked to the Tablighi Jamaat congregation, Lav Aggarwal, spokesman for India’s health ministry, told reporters in New Delhi on Friday.

“Though COVID-19 positive cases were being reported, the surge has happened only over the last two days,” he said. “This shows that one mistake can have repercussions and can put us back our efforts in fighting such a pandemic.”

Indian health authorities on Friday confirmed 2,301 coronavirus cases with 56 deaths. Globally, more than 58,200 people have died and at least 1,083,000 have been infected, according to the data from Johns Hopkins.

Prayuth declares curfew

In Thailand, a foreign ministry spokesman did not immediately reply to a text message and a phone call from BenarNews seeking comments on the Thai Muslims.

Thai authorities, meanwhile, imposed tighter measures this week to impede the spread of the coronavirus, including restrictions on operations of supermarkets, food stalls, restaurants and convenience stores in Bangkok.

On Friday, Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha intensified his nation’s fight against COVID-19 by imposing a curfew as authorities reported 103 new infections, taking the country’s total confirmed cases to 1,978.

“This restriction might be an inconvenience but we must adapt to survive,” Prayuth told reporters. “The goal is to contain this outbreak as soon as possible.”

Curfew violators could be punished by up to two years in prison and hefty fines, according to a government statement.

Prayuth had earlier ordered Thais in other countries to delay their trips until April 15. The extended measure requires Thais abroad to perform a two-week self-quarantine before flying back to the Buddhist-majority nation, where the coronavirus has so far killed at least 19 people.

Also on Friday, Thailand’s civil aviation agency announced that it would temporarily ban all incoming passenger flights in order to help curb the spread of the virus. The ban would take effect on Saturday and last until the end of Monday, Reuters reported.

An official at the Thai Southern Border Province Administration Center (SBPAC) said the Thai Muslim group in India would likely be unable to immediately return as a result of tighter travel restrictions.

“I’m afraid that they cannot come soon,” Chonthan Saenpoom, the SBPAC’s deputy chief, told BenarNews. “They need to abide by the prime minister’s order delaying home-bound trips of Thais abroad.”

Authorities imposed new travel restrictions after 13 Thai Muslims who attended a similar Tablighi religious gathering in Malaysia, from late February to early March, contracted coronavirus and one of them died.

At least 22 Thai Muslims were also infected with the virus that causes pneumonia-like symptoms after attending a similar religious event recently at a mosque in Indonesia, officials said.

“The prime minister announced the trip delays [from abroad] because of those [infections],” Dr. Taweesilp Wissanuyothin, spokesman for the government’s center to fight COVID, told a news conference Friday.

But, he said, almost 200 Muslims who had received approvals to travel back before the restriction took effect were expected to arrive next week.

“There are over 100 Thai pilgrims from Indonesia, as well as 83 from Malaysia who will arrive on April 6,” Taweesilp said. “We prepared places for their quarantine.”

The Tablighi Jamaat (“Society for Spreading Faith”) is a global missionary movement whose primary purpose is to encourage Muslims everywhere to be more religiously observant, according to Pew Research Center, a think-tank based in Washington, D.C.

The group, which was founded in 1926 in Mewat, India, by an Islamic scholar, began as an effort to counteract the activities of Hindu revivalists, who at the time were attempting to convert Muslims to Hinduism, according to the research center, which says the group operates in about 150 countries, with about 12 million members worldwide.


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